Monday, December 15, 2014

A Little Bah Humbug!

Thought I'd take a break at the end of the year on the movie reviews.  They will return in 2015.  Things get busy and it can be hard to maintain my discipline of watching lots and lots of movies.

But it's the secular "Christmas season" (as a person of faith I hold to the orthodox view that the true Christmas season begins on Christmas and goes for twelve days.  You really don't want to get me started on this.  Where we are right now?  It's called Advent.  I'm telling you, don't get me started) and time to deal with one of my favorite seasonal humbugs.

Christmas music.

My theory is that there are, in fact, only 37 actual Christmas songs.  But since there a bajillion VERSIONS of these songs, it just seems like there are more.

Do not be fooled.

Back when I was a radio Music Director this was my least favorite time of year.  At some point some one (and don't ever let me find out who.  Just don't) decided that radio stations should start playing Christmas music on the day after Thanksgiving.  In fact, they should play ONLY Christmas music on that day (which made it a truly Black Friday for your humble servant)!

I refused to do it.

And the hatred that ensued was something to behold.

Part of it was my feelings about the "Christmas season" but that was only a small piece.  My religious beliefs generally did not influence my music selection.  No, this had much more to do with the fact that radio station staff hear the music more than the average listener.  A LOT more.  I just couldn't bear listening to the bajillion versions of those 37 songs for a month.  Couldn't do it.  Wouldn't do it.

So we would begin with Christmas music on December 1.  With one song an hour for the first week.  Then two songs an hour for the second week.  And three during the third.  Eventually we would go all Christmas, all the time starting at 6 PM Christmas Eve through the same hour on Christmas day.  I would be long gone out of the station by then.

Man, that ticked people off.  We're talking serious call up and call me foul names kind of anger.  The staff just funneled those calls straight through to me.  Which was fine.

Don't get me wrong.  I love Christmas music.  We play hours of it at my house on Christmas morning and yes, we even play it before Christmas Day.  But there's a limit.  You need to restrict it so they stay special.

I heard of a station this year (2014) that started Christmas music just after Halloween.

These are dark, dark times.

Enjoy your music and have a very, Merry Christmas.  And just to show there's no hard feelings:

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas TV and Movies reprise

(This was a post I wrote back in 2010.  It is still my definitive list)

And the usual ranting about Christmas is well under way. The "Happy Holidays" rant, the "They've stolen Christmas" rant, all the usual suspects. I'm tempted to add a little rant of my own, mostly about how tired I am of the other rants. Instead let’s take a look a something important.  Like the most important Christmas movies and TV specials

It's Christmas. Make of it what you will. Maybe it’s a high holy day for you.  Maybe it’s really about Santa and the swag under the tree.  Maybe it’s just something to be survived.  Go for it.  I intend to revel in the midnight mass at my home parish. Smells and bells, and a full choir and all the decorations. I will rejoice in the arrival of the Messiah and the miracle of it all.
In the meantime let’s focus on what we can agree on.  Movies and TV specials have become an important part of getting ready for the season.  I'm going to enjoy my favorite Christmas specials. I own a copy of just about all of them:

WKRP in Cincinnati Christmas episode - a great show about radio and a great riff on Dickens.

A Charlie Brown Christmas - If I only could have only one this is it.  It’s amazing how well it holds up after all these decades.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - love it.  Yukon Cornelius and stop action animation.

The Homecoming - Christmas with the Waltons. A truly classic Christmas story

How The Grinch Stole Christmas - animated original only, don't bring that other one 'round here.

Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) - The Alistair Sims version or the Mr. Magoo version both classics

White Christmas - yeah, only nominally a true Christmas story but I love it.

A Wish for Wings that Work - OK my natural weirdness bubbles up on this one. This is the Bloom County animated special. It's very hard to find but my most excellent brother got it for me.

Miracle on 34th Street - the original only thank you very much.

There are lots of others out there (I will no doubt get an earful about omitting “A Christmas Story” or “Elf”.  Sorry neither make my cut).  So watch what puts you in the mood, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday and God Bless us everyone!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review - The Cyclops Conspiracy

The Cyclops Conspiracy by David Perry - (2012) Jason Rodgers has harbored a devastating secret.  A secret that nearly ended his career and cost him the love of his life. After the death of  her father, his mentor, Christine's father, Jason returns to confront his own mistakes, questions about the older man's death and a conspiracy that will take him far from the routine of running a pharmacy.

If the end of that last sentence strikes you as odd let me note that David Perry is a pharmacist.  He brings his knowledge of the field to offer an unique venue for a mystery/thriller.  The story moves nimbly working its way between Jason's conflict with his lost love, their questions about her father's death and his obsession with conspiracies in the years before his death plus a sexually aggressive female doctor with her eyes  on Jason and a mysterious pharmacy owner prepared to offer Jason a challenging and very profitable employment opportunity.

Perry does an outstanding job of holding all the story lines together and creates just the kind of adventure conspiracy thriller fans desire.  I totally enjoyed the ride and looked forward to every moment when I could keep on reading.  He creates characters that will stick with you after you're done.

I only have two small issues with the book.  I would have loved a little deeper look into the whole pharmacy angle.  One of the things that Tom Clancy did so well was to take you inside the workings of whatever he was talking about (I swear in one book he actually told the reader how to build an atomic bomb!).  Perry has the chance to do the same with his career profession and I would have welcomed it.  I'm assuming that there's more than just "pill pushing" to it all.

The other issue is a fairly stock one for most books of the genre.  It's the apparent requirement that the characters always do the wrong thing and make the worst possible decisions at all times.  At one point Jason is asked, by a character that he neither likes nor trusts, to take some pictures of some vacant property being considered for an expansion location.  And, oh by the way, wander by the Navy yard and get some photos of the new aircraft carrier being built.  The outcome of his agreement is pretty predictable.  There are a couple other equivalent decisions in the book.  None of which ruin the story in any way.  I'm just wondering if a thriller can be constructed where people don't make dumb decisions constantly.

I found this book while exploring the Williamsburg Book Festival this past fall.  I got the chance to chat briefly with the author.  Book fairs are a great chance to discover new authors and explore all kinds of books that you might completely miss otherwise.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Movie Review - The Black Hole

The Black Hole (1979) - A deep space exploration mission discovers a vessel missing for twenty years.  Inside they will meet the mad genius who has found a way to travel through a black hole to a different location in spacetime. Other secrets will be revealed as they explore the life he has created in his time alone in space.

This movie holds a special place in my personal movie pantheon.  It was the movie for which I had paid for admission that I seriously thought about walking out before the end.  Along with the original Star Trek movie and "Starship Troopers", it stands as the worst major motion picture science fiction flick of all time. When I stated my disdain for it last year a younger friend who is also a movie fan took exception.  It was suggested that I should see it again (I have not watched it since my original viewing in 1979).

At long last, I have done just that.

Every one of my objections has been reinvigorated.

Here's a little background before I begin to detail my dislikes of this movie.  First, it came out two years after the first Star Wars movie and cost nine million dollars more than that film.  This was the first movie from the House of the Mouse (Disney) NOT to have a G Rating.  This was pitched as Disney's first movie aimed at an "adult" audience.

On the upside, the movie has a great concept.  It has some stunning visual sequences.  This may be the epitome of the art of matte photography in fact.  The movie opens with the most extensive digital sequence in movie history to that point.

In the end, it all comes to nothing. Where to even begin?

The movie begins with an overture, an antiquated affectation for which I bear no love.  "The Black Hole" is generally credited with being one of the last two major motion pictures to have one.  The other?  "Star Trek - The Motion Picture".

I'm about to compare TBH with Star Wars.  Before the SW critics coming screaming after me please know that I am well aware of the shortcomings of that movie series.  My opinion is that some of those complaints are simply George Lucas fulfilling his vision of re-creating the old movie serials.  Given their proximity in history and genre they seem an obvious comparison.

The script is terrible.  The story lurches along.  The dialogue makes the at times awkward dialogue of "Star Wars" sound like Shakespeare.  The SW characters have a depth and nuance that TBH cast can only yearn for.  And yes, that's not setting the bar all that high.

Curiously, SW did set the bar for visual effects to a new high two years before.  TBH doesn't manage to meet that standard either.

The movie really looks like the Disney movies I grew up watching in the '60s.  Director Gary Nelson's resume is primarily television and it looks like it here.  The feeling is very much a kid's movie.  Which is disappointing in Disney's first shot at a grown up film.

But those are the simple things.  Now let's hit the high points of what's wrong with this movie.

The science - Neil DeGrasse Tyson has called it the most scientifically inaccurate movie of all time.  Need I say more?

The black hole -  A force so powerful that not even light can escape!  So explain why it glows blue against the depthless black of interstellar space?  Even a Theater major caught that incongruity.

The robots - Oh, lord.  SW brought a whole new dimension to the idea of robots in the movies.  TBH clings to the older trope and it looks truly outdated here.  Combine the stiff-legged gait with the silly, comic relief "personalities" and you end up with just horrible, cliche robots.  Easily the worst of them is V.I.N.-cent (voiced by Roddy McDowell).  The construction of the robot body screams children's movie. It offended me the first time I was it and it's no better now.  Add in the cutesy pie dialogue assigned him (Vincent apparently swallowed "Barlett's Familiar Quotations".  Most of his lines are quotes, which I assume were to offer something pithy to the screenplay.  Nope.)  Maximillian (the head robot for the mad scientist) is almost as bad.  Like so many movie robots, his standard equipment includes a variety of utterly illogical tools.  He is a kind of Darth Vader meets a Cylon with accessory can openers.

This movie cost nine million dollars more than SW.  It had the full effort of a major studio organization behind it.  Yet it falls dreadfully short of its potential.

What I find really astounding is the level of fealty it draws from certain quarters.  It is compared to "2001 - A Space Odyssey" despite the fact that it falls utterly short of that visual standard.  An under-appreciated classic?


Rating - ** Not Impressed

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review - Down Solo

Down Solo - A Novel of Suspense by Earl Javorsky (2014) -  Charlie Minor is a small-time detective with a list of less than reputable characters filling his life, a borderline crazy wife and a daughter with whom he doesn't spend nearly enough time.  But when he wakes up dead, his life gets really complicated.  Seriously.  He's dead and walking around trying to solve his final case.   Unless you count figuring out how he actually manages to wander around with that bullet in his skull...

There's an old saying that the first line of the novel should hook you.  Earl Javorsky's first two lines were when I knew I was hooked:
They say once a junkie, always a junkie, but this is ridculous.  I haven't been dead more than a few hours and I already need a fix.
I knew just that quickly this wasn't like every other book I've read this year.  Javorsky manages to create a quirky, funny story that is also an outstanding mystery.  Charlie is struggling with all the things that life has thrown him plus the challenges of being not quite dead.  In a brisk 200 pages, he brings together murder, out of body experiences, the walking dead, fathers and daughters and more in a story that simply demands your continued reading.  The combination of Stephen King and Raymond Chandler creates a really interesting new voice in mystery writing.  It's funny, warm, challenging and thought provoking.

That's no small accomplishment for any author.  For a first novel, it is an achievement worthy of note.  When it hits the shelves you should grab a copy.

Down Solo hits the shelves December 9, 2014.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, November 24, 2014

Movie Review - The Game

The Game (1997) - Wealthy and emotionally remote San Francisco financier Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) gets a strange birthday present from wayward brother Conrad (Sean Penn): a live-action game that consumes his life.

So, it turns out I reviewed this movie before.  I had no memory of that (which is probably not a good thing for this review) but the concept fascinated me.  After seeing the movie and realizing that it was familiar I went back and checked.  Low and behold, there it was, February of last year.  It was interesting to read the old review after seeing it again.

I will certainly agree with the complaint about typical psychological thriller movie tropes (endless gunfire that seems to get no attention, people who appear and disapper, sometimes in large numbers).  On the other hand they are part and parcel of the genre.  This time I dropped them into the "willing suspension of disbelief" bin and just leaned back for the ride.  

I enjoyed it a lot more this time.

The story plays with the reaction of an emotionally stunted banking mogul who is thrust into an environment that appears to be completely beyond his control.  When the world is not leaping at his every demand he discovers that he's not quite as tough as he always believed.  The story moves at lightning speed and sweeps you and Douglas's character along.

I still like the small roles for ormer movie bombshell Carroll Baker appears as Douglas's housekeeper and veteran newsman Daniel Schorr as himself.  Schorr is one of the fun moments in the movie, not sure why I didn't like it last time.

Overall, the movie hits on all the cylinders that a psychological thriller should.  Ignore the silly stuff and enjoy the fun. The ending comes several minutes too late and I still think it's rather lame.

So I'll bump this one up just a half star.

Rating - ***1/2

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review - War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds  by H.G. Wells (1897) - Earth astronomers are surprised by a series of violent explosions on the surface of Mars.  All too soon they will discover the cause of the disturbance as spaceships slam into the quiet English country side near London.  The Martians have landed and their intent is to destroy humanity and take our world.  One man finds himself trapped in the area where the ships have landed.  The story of everything that happened during those terrible days and the surprising ending are detailed here.

This is another classic story that everyone thinks they know by heart and are utterly wrong.  There are several concepts that have carried through the legendary radio broadcasts and the movies.  Mars, Martians, invasion, tripods, death and destruction.  The problem is that we've become so comfortable with the radio/TV coverage version of the story that we've lost Wells original.

The story in the novel is told completely as a first person account of a man who gets caught in the middle of the invasion.  He sees his fellow citizens first approaching the crash sites with curiousity, only to be killed without provocation by the invaders.  He will see entire villages wiped out by a creeping black smoke and thousands of others fleeing without plan or compassion for others.  The story as we have come to know it isn't really all that interesting.  It's fairly stock science fiction fare as the evil aliens invade the world.  Wells story brings a level of true horror to the story because it all begins in such a mundane fashion and our protagonist begins with such every day concerns.  At the time he wrote the story he has the aliens land in the heart of the greatest power in the world.  Against the aliens that power has no answer to the invasion.  The Martians sweep the military aside with as little effort as they expend against the regular populace.  It is clear that if they gain a foothold on this world, humanity will not be able to stand before the onslaught.

This is no lightweight, breezy bit of science fiction fluff.  Wells creates a powerful indictment of human arrogance that is only strengthened by the ending.

The writing stands up fabulously well for the modern reader and the message is truly compelling.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review - The Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera (1925) - The classic silent movie version, starring Lon Chaney as the disfigured genius behind the mirror at the Paris Opera who becomes obsessed with a young singer.

It's easy to assume that movie making back in the early days of the art was much simpler, with a less compex visual approach to story telling.  Sitting and watching a great movie of that age will show you just how foolish that opinion is.  Chaney offers a masters class all by himself, from his trademark makeup to the carefully crafted performance of a man driven beyond the realm of sanity.  Watching him descend the grand staircase in the masque bal scene disguised as the Masque of the Red Death (one of the earliest full color segments for the mass audience) is stunning.  The final scene where the Phantom holds the mob at bay through the sheer power of his personality will hold the movie goer in the exact same way.

The acting is a little uneven.  Even taking into account the vast difference in acting style between then and now, there are moments that don't seem to jibe very well.  This is probably due to the fact that several directors worked on the movie over the span of two years and pieces of all of their work was editted together.  In the end we are still left with movie that tells its story well with an interesting visual approach.  Wrap all of that around the iconic vision of the Phantom brought together by Chaney and you have a true classic.

The opportunity to see a silent movie in a theater of that generation with one of the classic movie theater Wurlitzer organs was not to be resisted.  Seeing one of these movies in this kind of venue was on my movie lover Bucket List.  The Byrd Theater in Richmond opened in 1928 to much acclaim.  It has maintained a special place in the heart of Richmond ever since.  It is also the home of one of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" organs.  Rising from its lair in the orchestra pit, the console controls pipes, harp, grand piano and a variety of  sound effects.  I had to remind myself several times that the soundtrack was the work of a single musician on a single instrument.  The experience was everything I had hoped for and then some.  The Byrd is in the process of revitalizing the building and all its parts including the organ.  I am glad to support that effort.

Rating - (See it at home) ****  Recommended
              (In a classic theater with organ) ***** Highest Recommendation

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Best of the Web - Welcome to Night Vale

(Best of the Web is an occasional series of posts where I highlight websites that I think bring out the best of what the web can be.  The choices and the standards upon which they are made are entirely my own)

Welcome to Night Vale (podcasts)  is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.

It was inevitable that I was going to love this podcast series.  Focusing on the voice of the community radio station, Cecil Gershwin Palmer, as he takes us through the day to day events in this quiet desert town.  This has the feel of an old time radio serial as well plus elements of mystery, science fiction and absurdist theater.  Having grown up on "The Twilight Zone" and been a fan as an adult of "Twin Peaks", "The X-Files" and "Lost" the chances that I wouldn't at least try WTNV were vanishingly small.

Once you are introduced to the dog park where dogs (and people and even looking into the dog park) is banned, where the Sheriff's Secret Police send in public service announcements for Cecil to read, where street cleaning day gives rise to terror and Valentine's Day is an annual trial for the community to survive I don't think it's possible to resist regular trips to Night Vale (and you shouldn't resist, you mustn't resist).  Before you've listened to a dozen episodes you will be able to anticipate Cecil and say certain phrases right along with him ("John Peters, you know, the farmer" and "Old lady Josie who lives out near the carlot").  Everything is just a half a bubble off and you will never listen to local media the same way again.

What really makes this stand out from so much of the rest is the quality of the writing and the virtuoso performance of  Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Gershwin Palmer.  The writing is done by the series creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (with contributions by a wide range of other writers during the course of the series).  The consistently high quality of that writing is rather astounding all by itself.  When delivered in the low key delivery of Baldwin it is riveting.  When Cecil (the character) suddenly grows animated about something (usually Carlos.  No spoilers here, you'll have to discover the wonder of Carlos for yourself) it provides the perfect counterpoint to usual unflappability of the voice of Night Vale.

Today WTNV is the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, it has it's own touring show and a novel in the works.  Just because something is popular doesn't mean it can't also be the best of what is on the web.  WTNV manages both.

Come to the land where time runs at its own pace and every conspiracy theory is a banal part of daily life.  Explore how creative, hysterically funny and skin crawlingly creepy a podcast can be.

Welcome to Night Vale.

It's what the Internet can be, at its best.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie Review - Empire of th Air

Empire of the Air - The Men Who Made Radio (1991) - Ken Burns delves into the stories of the three men most central to the development of radio and eventually television - Lee de Forest, E.H. Armstrong and David Sarnoff.  The growth of Radio into the first electronic, broadcast medium and its dominance of the American media scene for fifty years requires the peculiar gifts and failings of each man.  de Forest was a genius at self promotion and adapting others work into something innovative.  He created the audion tube, which made broadcast radio possible.  Armstrong was the true inventive genius of the bunch.  Easily the least known of the trio, Armstrong had a greater impact on the technical end of radio than any other person.  Among his inventions was FM radio.  Finally there is the Russian immigrant David Sarnoff.  Sarnoff's genius was the organizational and business vision the other two lacked.  The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and television are among his gifts to the world.  Their paths would cross and re-cross over the years, leading to a battle royal among their egos.

If there is one thing that these three men share beyond their individual geniuses, it is the enormous egos of each of them.  Because they would never compromise, because each of them held tenaciously to their belief in their unique place in history they would battle one another with quarter neither asked nor given.  In pure business terms it would be Sarnoff who would win.  Court battles that lasted for decades eventually drove Armstrong to suicide.  Lee de Forest became a figure of equal respect and disdain in history.  Even Sarnoff's fame has faded more than he had hoped in the four decades or so since his death.

Burns does his usual wonderful job of bringing the story of the people involved to life.  Jason Robards narrates with the kind of gravitas we have also come to associate with a Ken Burns film. Close to a hundred years of history are covered in a concise two hours.

The audience for this documentary is probably a little limited.  For a "radio guy" like me this was a wonderful reminder of the glory days of the medium that still holds a special place in my heart. If you grew up with radio as domininant or at least influential medium, this would be very interesting.  For anyone who wants to understand where our current media world began this should be must viewing.

Rating - ***  Worth A Look